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How remote work is changing patch management

The work-from-home revolution is putting new demands on remote patch management. Here's how to tackle the challenges and make sure your remote workforce is protected.

Patching critical digital infrastructure has long been a painstaking process. Patch deployment teams once had to be physically on-site to conduct a series of manual processes, which presented plenty of opportunities for human error.

Fortunately, today's patch management systems allow system administrators to conduct, monitor, and test the effectiveness of software and firmware updates over the internet, often in a completely automated fashion.

But not all remote patch management approaches are ideal for every infrastructure environment. Some provide key features and benefits at the expense of other, equally important ones. The picture has only grown more complex with the rise of hybrid and remote work.

Let's look at the impact remote workforces have on patch management, the challenges of remote patching, best practice guidelines, and the most popular patch management features to help you identify which tools can benefit your organization the most.

Remote work's impact on patch management

The field of IT is becoming increasingly disaggregated, due in large part to remote work trends. Corporate work-from-home policies have driven significant changes in how IT teams perform tasks. From a patch management perspective, teams must put considerable effort into the planning, testing, execution, and rollback phases of their patch workflow processes to better ensure that patches are implemented properly the first time and that remote validation checks can be performed to verify that there are no negative impacts.

Any modifications to a patch management policy that are intended to address remote patching procedures must include remote checks and balances and provide additional cross-team visibility, coordination, and approval steps to clearly define patch roles and responsibilities. Continuously updating the policy helps streamline processes, reduce security risks and prioritize patches.

Challenges of remote patch management

Patching systems remotely introduces a number of challenges compared to performing the same tasks while on premises, including the following:

Network connectivity. Getting reliable access to the remote devices that need patching can be challenging when network connectivity and remote access systems are limited and if interruptions or bandwidth limitations occur during the patch window.

Testing and validation. Remote patching can reduce visibility to parts of the infrastructure that might have been negatively impacted by a remote patch.

Patch rollbacks. Rolling back software can lead to situations where remote access to systems and networks becomes unavailable.

Cross-team coordination. The need to coordinate the activities of multiple teams that are working to apply patches can create communication and timing mistakes that add risk.

Security risks. Patching systems remotely often requires that systems be accessible by IT patching teams over the internet, which is more susceptible to unauthorized access than internal networks.

Best practices for remote patching

To effectively manage remote patching, consider the following steps to ensure patch consistency, reliability and security:

  • Include a remote patching process in your standardized patch management processes and policies.
  • Configure remote access controls to limit access to infrastructure systems while providing the necessary controls for patch installation and validation.
  • Use centralized and automated patch management tools.
  • Perform thorough patch testing using a sandbox or digital twin environment before deploying patches.
  • Ensure that post-patch visibility and monitoring are sufficient.
  • Implement robust rollback capabilities, including offline rollback processes that can maintain local software with automated rollback steps if remote connectivity is lost.
  • Use patch scheduling to support patch prioritization and cross-team communication and visibility.

Remote patch management tools: What to look for

Modern patch management tools often come with features and configuration options for remote patch deployment. Look for the following features and benefits:

Centralized management console. A unified dashboard can provideHa full visibility into patch software, history, scheduling and communication. Centralized patch management tools are also far easier to secure and monitor for unauthorized access and use.

Automated patching and scheduling. Patch management tools offer automated scheduling that lets administrators run patch updates on a specified date and time and without human intervention. If a problem occurs during the patch window, these tools can alert admins to the problem for quick resolution.

Bandwidth optimization. If bandwidth to a remote site is limited, patching tools that offer bandwidth monitoring and optimization can help to ensure that patch updates continue to run, even when throughput is limited.

Automated post-patch testing and validation. Patch tools can run various health and validation checks across a network infrastructure to verify that a patch did not result in an unforeseen outage, performance degradation or service conflict.

Scalability. When choosing a patch management tool, make sure it can be used efficiently in your environment and that it can scale with your organization as you grow.

Vendor compatibility and support. Make sure the patching tools are compatible with the application software, firmware and operating systems the patch teams are responsible for, and that the vendors are willing to help troubleshoot patch failures.

Remote patch management is possible with the right tools and processes

For most enterprises, the necessary patch management tools already exist to help administrators update features and security fixes for all of their systems, wherever they are physically located.

Most of the challenge, instead, revolves around carrying out the processes and workflows that can ensure success. That's why the creation and upkeep of a patch management policy is so critical. With it, you get clear instructions about roles, responsibilities, priorities, and communication before a patch window opens and patch deployment begins.

Andrew Froehlich is founder of InfraMomentum, an enterprise IT research and analyst firm, and president of West Gate Networks, an IT consulting company. He has been involved in enterprise IT for more than 20 years.

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